The Pope was drawn directly into the Roman Catholic sex abuse scandal last night as news emerged of his part in a decision to send a paedophile priest for therapy. The cleric went on to reoffend and was convicted of child abuse but continues to work as a priest in Upper Bavaria.
The priest was sent from Essen to Munich for therapy in 1980 when he was accused of forcing an 11-year-old boy to perform oral sex. The archdiocese confirmed that the Pope, who was then a cardinal, had approved a decision to accommodate the priest in a rectory while the therapy took place.
The priest, identified only as H, was subsequently convicted of sexually abusing minors after he was moved to pastoral work in nearby Grafing. In 1986 he was given an 18-month suspended jail sentence and fined DM 4,000 (£1,800 today). There have been no formal charges against him since.
The church has been accused of a cover-up after at least 170 allegations of child abuse by German Catholic priests. The scandal broke in January but the claims, which continue to emerge, span three decades. Critics say that priests were redeployed to other parishes rather than dismissed when they were found to be abusing children.
The Archdiocese of Munich and Freising said that there had been no complaints against the priest during the therapy at a church community in Munich. It said that the decision to let him continue working in Grafing was taken by Gerhard Gruber, now 81, who was vicar general of the archdiocese.
The Vatican said that Mgr Gruber had taken “full responsibility” for the priest’s move back into pastoral work but did not comment further.
Mgr Gruber said that the Pope, who was made a cardinal in 1977, had not been not aware of his decision because there were 1,000 priests in the diocese at the time and he had left many decisions to lower-level officials. “The cardinal could not deal with everything,” he said. “The repeated employment of H in pastoral duties was a serious mistake … I deeply regret that this decision led to offences against youths. I apologise to all those who were harmed.” He did not indicate whether the convicted paedophile would be allowed to continue working in the church.
An American group, Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, said it “boggles the mind to hear a German Catholic official claim that a credibly accused paedophile priest was reassigned to parish work without the knowledge of his boss, then-Archbishop Joseph Ratzinger”. Any expulsion of a priest from the Church, however, must go through the Vatican.
The Pope was Archbishop of Munich and Freising from 1977 to 1982 and then moved to Rome as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, a post that he held until his election as pontiff five years ago after the death of John Paul II.
Priest H worked in an old people’s home for two years after his conviction. He then moved to the town of Garching, where he became a curate and later a church administrator. In May 2008 he was removed from his duties in Garching and was not allowed to work with young people. He still works in the diocese, according to the newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung, which broke the story.
Archbishop Robert Zollitsch, the head of Germany’s Catholic bishops, apologised yesterday to the victims of clerical sex abuse after meeting Pope Benedict. He said that the German-born Pope had expressed “great dismay” over the scandals and had encouraged him to take “decisive and courageous steps” to tackle the problem.
Mgr Zollitsch, Archbishop of Freiburg, said that the German Church would investigate abuse allegations and take measures to prevent a recurrence. He said that the Pope had been “deeply moved” by his report of sex abuse cases in Germany, and had praised the naming of a bishop to act as a clerical sex-abuse watchdog. He added that paedophilia was not confined to the Roman Catholic Church.
Mgr Gerhard Müller, the Bishop of Regensburg, said there was “not even a minimal link” between paedophilia and priestly celibacy, which would “not be modified”.